America on the Brink   /   Fall 2020   /    Signifiers


“Cancel”: a very useful word for pushing already contentious or delicate matters into the realm of total confusion.

B.D. McClay

Traditionally, things one can cancel include television shows, magazine subscriptions, medical appointments, plans with friends, orders, and dates. If you check Google trends for searches for cancel, they spike at the beginning of last March, when people were starting to check if events were canceled because of COVID-19. But you might wonder at first if there was some sort of early-March scandal you’d forgotten, because over the past few years we have also added “people” to this list.

The current use of cancel is a Trump-era coinage, or at least a Trump-era concern, even though slangy, charged uses of it predate him. But on its account, hands have been wrung and think pieces published since at least 2017. In 2018, Kanye West tweeted “no more cancel culture,” by which point the term already felt old. Yet it soldiers on, uncancelable.

This may be in part because nobody really knows what cancel means. Its meaning is rounded up or down to suit the user’s purpose: It’s a life-ruining event or it’s inconsequential pushback; it’s groupthink or it’s merely strongly voiced disagreement. People who cancel are fond of equating language they dislike with violence, but the canceled are equally likely to talk of being burned at the stake, lynched, or sent to the gulag. Cancellation can mean losing your job, getting dropped by your publisher, losing your friends, or being disliked by strangers. And the reasons for cancellation can vary from racist abuse, to domestic violence, to losing your temper in public, to things you might have done or said years ago.

Cancel’s murkiness has made it a very useful word for pushing already contentious or delicate matters into the realm of total confusion. Jessica Krug, an academic who had pretended for over a decade to be black, confessed her deception in a blog post on Medium earlier this year in which she wrote,

I should absolutely be cancelled. No. I don’t write in passive voice, ever, because I believe we must name power. So. You should absolutely cancel me, and I absolutely cancel myself.

What does that mean?

I don’t know.

One is tempted to say that calling for a form of punishment nobody can really define, including yourself, is about the same as saying you shouldn’t be punished at all. In any case, Krug’s blog post is a kind of master document of online culture in 2020 in its combination of self-flagellating condemnation with a distinct lack of specificity about what Krug actually did, much less what she might do to put the situation right. Less important to it than questions of justice or restitution are questions of whether Krug is now or has ever been a good person.

But if cancel is not easily defined, it can be described. At its most basic, cancellation occurs when you are called out for presumed moral or ideological reasons, and you parry with some form of passive aggression. If you ignore your critics, or respond in some other way, the dynamic cannot be completed. Usually, cancellation follows this pattern: Person X has a misdeed in his or her past or holds a controversial opinion. Person Z, for reasons of his or her own, brings this action or opinion into wider circulation. X can react in a variety of ways, from over-the-top apology to an over-the-top pantomime of being harmed. After this, anything can happen. X may emerge vindicated and even on top. X may also be fired or suffer other professional consequences. Whatever happens to X, Z’s own fate might not be so rosy; Z may even be the subject of a backlash cancellation.

While Z can be, quite literally, anybody, X is usually—though not always—a worker in a field of high prestige but low stability, such as the arts, journalism, or academia. As the number of jobs in these fields shrink, the laid off and the employed are stuck in an increasingly vicious game of musical chairs. So if you find out that somebody who has a chair has a skeleton or two in his closet, the temptation to broadcast it may be as much about trying to save yourself as to win some moral victory. Usually, nobody actually benefits in these situations. But the hope that you might springs eternal.

Cancellation is a form of scandal, but one associated almost exclusively with left-wing politics, much like “call-out culture” and “trashing” before it. Things that might be identical to “cancellation” can happen on the right: widespread backlashes against art viewed as blasphemous or obscene; attacks on public figures who make statements that seem insufficiently patriotic; boycotts of companies whose figureheads overstep certain political lines; long memories for particular acts of misguided activism even if those involved have apologized, such as “Hanoi” Jane Fonda. But none of these people are “canceled.” Trump isn’t canceled, or even the object of a single persistent scandal (instead being at the center of many intermittent scandals), but he can accuse others of trying to cancel him. Conservatives can be canceled, but they cannot cancel. Maybe that doesn’t make a lot of sense, but it’s how the game goes.

For this reason, most people who fear cancellation consider themselves “good liberals.” Cases of ideological cancellation usually revolve around what qualifies somebody as a good liberal, in the vague American sense in which liberal means a person on the middle or the left of the political spectrum but definitely not on that part where a Republican might stand. For some it may be the loss of liberal bona fides that is more painful, at least in the imagination, than any perceived material harm cancellation could bring. Can you be a “good liberal” and believe that trans women are not women, a “good liberal” and question protest tactics, a “good liberal” and oppose abortion, a “good liberal” and support a hawkish foreign policy? All of these have been reasons to cancel people in the recent past. But as in the case of Krug’s self-flagellating apology, in which she wanted to prove that she’s still a good person, the stakes of being a “good liberal” in these conversations seem low and bespeak a preoccupation with being esteemed more than an attachment to free discourse. Many people, after all, are not good liberals, or liberals at all.

Much ink has been spilled—including, now, by me—trying to pin down what cancel means, if cancellation exists, if cancellation is “good” or “bad,” and if cancellation (as a phenomenon) even matters. More interesting is why people want to do it. Even being canceled is for some people, I suspect, an object of fantasy. If something so nebulous preoccupies your thoughts, even as a fear, it may be something you desire to happen to you on some level. But most acts of cancellation involve people interesting themselves in the standing of somebody who is a stranger—whose history they don’t really know, with whom they have no personal relationship, and to whom they may not dedicate any thought after the furor has passed. They aren’t motivated by something as easy as revenge. So what is it?

We don’t live in a predictably punitive culture—even a culture that is predictably too punitive. Nor do we live in a predictably permissive one. Instead, in its punishments and its permissions, our culture is erratic. There’s no one thing that, if everybody knew it, would result in the same consequence for any given individual. People can get away with pedophilia if they are valuable enough in other ways, and other people—say, a nineteen-year-old person with a fifteen-year-old significant other—can end up on sex offender registries for having sex. Some people can never catch a break, and each enforced consequence creates a cascade of other consequences that make it harder and harder to avoid breaking a new rule. A credit score can greatly shape the possibilities open to somebody, but other people get rich through multiple bankruptcies.

In a reasonable world, actions—even honest mistakes, if their results are serious enough—would have predictable and fair consequences: A police officer who shot an unarmed person would get fired; a politician who voted for a mistaken war or disastrous bill would have to retire; the appropriate response to systemic financial collapse would not be to bail out those who created the problem but to help the drowning. If you sexually harass an employee or coworker, maybe you shouldn’t be run out of your field, but you shouldn’t be allowed to supervise people from that point on. But this isn’t what happens. The politicians stay in the game, the policemen stay employed, the banks are bailed out, and the handsy supervisor can fire you and not the other way around.

Unless, that is, somebody falls into a kind of middle zone: one where he or she is visible already or acts in a clearly visible way and isn’t quite valuable enough to anybody to be protected. This might be a once famous person whose power or prestige has declined—Woody Allen, for example. Or it might be a private person who threatens to call the police over a small dispute in a public park. These are the only kinds of people to whom the public feels able to deal out consequences. And so the public does.

All of the above is to say that cancellation leaves me talking out of both sides of my mouth. I think people should be willing to say what they think even in the face of strong resistance, and that in certain kinds of work that right should be protected over other considerations; that, short of actual evidence tying words to violence, people should refrain from invoking the dead or conjuring up images of being burned at the stake; that it is fair that certain kinds of sins have permanent consequences; that those consequences tend to attach themselves to other, innocent people in a way that none of us want; that people should be able to concede when they’ve lost an argument; that people should be comfortable with being disliked. I do not wish to end anybody’s career, but it’s true that sometimes I just want to switch someone off.

But I also think cancellation has taken away something more than open debate about contentious topics. Shame, rebuke, and conflict can be productive and make us better people, as well as make us frightened, embittered, and defensive. Guilt and the confession of guilt can be necessary steps to growth. But in much the same way that our carceral system takes away from us the possibility of real justice, cancellation forecloses the possibility of real shame. People increasingly understand that the way to get through public shaming is either to brazen your way out of it or cast yourself as grievously victimized. But a society in which people maintain their status through never admitting they were wrong is one in which things can only get worse.

Much of what I’ve said here may strike some readers as naive. Public life is not about becoming better people. The world has never been fair. Cancel culture is a proxy for a power struggle between…well, who knows. But there is a lot of free-floating anger out there and a not-misguided sense that the people who run the world and their enforcers are insulated from any consequences. As the economic situation in this country has grown worse, as people have lost their jobs and their homes, so too have expressions of popular anger become more violent. If I were in a position to do so, I would probably consider what I’d have to do to make the world a lot fairer, a lot more quickly. Digital mobs, however you feel about them, are preferable to one at your door.